Thursday, March 14, 2013

"PIC" Is More Than Just a Column in the Logbook

Sometimes, our worst moments make for the best learning opportunities.


A few years ago, I had just moved to New York state as a relatively inexperienced aircraft owner with a handful of long cross country trips under my belt; memories of training for my private pilot certificate still had a glossy sheen of recency when I replayed them in my mind.

I signed up for the "Rochester WINGS" weekend, a Saturday program of seminars and free flight training that would yield a completed FAA WINGS proficiency phase at the end of the day.  I was paired with "Stan" (not his real name) as my volunteer instructor.  Upon learning this, I was struck by a mild sense of weirdness.  I already knew Stan reasonably well and considered him a friend.  Being paired with him was almost as strange as the time I started a new job only to have my boss fired on the second day and replaced by my former stepfather (we had a rocky history, but that is a story for a different time).  At the very least, I had a good relationship with Stan.

Stan and I went to the seminars and chose to defer flying for a different day.  To complete the flight portion of the WINGS phase, we took Warrior 481 airborne on a Sunday morning bound for Oswego County Airport and one of its always fantastic EAA fly-in breakfasts.  Just off of Le Roy, I went under the hood (e.g., I donned some blinders that blocked everything but the instrument panel), contacted Rochester approach for flight following, and flew on instruments for the first time since my private pilot check ride.  As it turned out, I did well at this, tracking straight and true along my assigned headings as I stared intently at the instrument panel.

A Tale of Two Airports

South Haven Area Regional Airport (LWA), photographed November 14, 2004

To put what happened next into better context, a slight tangent is in order.

My previous home base in South Haven, MI (LWA) was on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, its runways forming a large, lopsided "X" defined by the turf runway 14-32 and paved 4-22.  Robertson's Crop Dusting operated two Pawnee spray planes from their base of operations south of the intersection of the runways. Their standard protocol was to depart heavily laden with chemicals on runway 4 and return via runway 32 with the intention of minimizing time on the ground.  Most of us based at the airport also tended to land on runway 32 because the grass strip was nearly always aligned with the wind.  On the other hand, transients usually shunned the turf in favor of pavement, even though that often meant landing in a strong crosswind off of Lake Michigan.

As a result, simultaneous operations on the intersecting runways were not uncommon at South Haven. More than once, I heard the patter on Unicom interrupted by a surprised exclamation from transients on downwind for runway 22 upon their observation of a NORDO (no radio) Pawnee passing beneath them on short final for the grass. As a new pilot, I effectively "grew up" there and did not find this level of chaos to be unusual or distressing, but simply an occasion for added caution.
Oswego County Airport (FZY), photographed January 3, 2007

On my first trip to the Oswego County Airport, I was struck by its similar layout to South Haven, resting close to the Lake Ontario shore with intersecting paved runways 15-33 and 6-24.  Clearly, the lakeshore was in the wrong relative position to the airport, but it otherwise felt very familiar.

This was to be a factor in my undoing.

Aeronautical Lemmings

Still under the hood with Stan in the right seat, I noted that we were within 10 miles of the Oswego County Airport. I wanted to switch frequencies so that I could listen to Oswego's Unicom and begin creating a mental picture of the traffic at our destination.

"Naw, give it another few miles," Stan said.  I did not agree with this, but complied.  I did, however, tune the field's automated weather observation frequency and heard that the winds were 10 knots at 050° and decided that a landing on runway 6 made the most sense.

Five miles out, Stan allowed me to remove the hood and cancel radar services.  Changing frequencies quickly revealed that light aircraft were swarming around Oswego like flies.  All of them were using runway 33 and landing with a direct crosswind.

I weighed the options quietly.  I could certainly handle a ten knot crosswind and thought that it would be good practice.  I decided to enter the pattern for runway 33 along with everyone else so as to not disrupt traffic.  I banked Warrior 481 northward toward the lake to set myself up for a 45° pattern entry.

"What are you doing?" Stan asked.  When I explained, he shook his head.  "They're all landing with a crosswind and should be using runway 6.  You should use runway 6."

I looked at him for a moment.  Was he testing me?  "Really, Stan, I can handle the crosswind and we don't need to cause any confusion in the pattern."

"No.  Runway 6."  He was adamant.

"I think I should join the pattern for runway 33."

"Sure," said Stan.  "And, if you have an accident, how will your insurance company react when you tell them that you unnecessarily landed in a crosswind just because everyone else was?"

He had a point, but I still did not like it.  I had never disobeyed a flight instructor before.  After all, flight instructors lived on Olympus and knew everything, right? My experience from South Haven had taught me that simultaneous runway operations were manageable provided that one could stop short at the runway intersection; this would be a piece of cake with Oswego's long runways.

I expressed concern that entering the pattern for runway 6 would place me in conflict with traffic in the runway 33 pattern. Stan pointed out the windscreen.  "You're already lined up for runway 6, go straight in."

I hate unnecessary straight-in approaches at non-towered fields, they just seem to incite chaos when other aircraft are already in the pattern.  I understand that straight-ins come with practice or actual instrument approaches, but outside of those scenarios, I always fly the pattern.  But as I sorted out the three-dimensional picture in my mind's eye, I realized that he had a good point.  A straight-in final approach to 6 would carry me under the pattern traffic for runway 33 without posing a conflict. It would be just like the crop dusters on final approach for the grass at South Haven with traffic above them on downwind for the paved runway. It made some amount of geometric sense.

Mass Panic

We were running out of time, rapidly approaching the airport.  I complied with Stan's instructions and announced my intentions to land straight in on runway 6.

This generated instant chaos.

A pilot already rolling on runway 33 executed a go-around.  The airplane about to land on runway 33 went around, too.  To the sound of sniping and crabbing on the radio, we landed softly on runway 6 and stopped at least 1000' shy of the intersection with runway 33.  The windsock, standing nearly straight out,  pointed directly at us.

"See," Stan said indicating the windsock.  "You did the right thing.  The rest of them are in the wrong."

So why did I feel so low?

Worst. Lesson. Ever. (...?)

Years after this incident, I still feel a knot of embarrassment when replaying the memories.  I have shared my other aeronautical missteps (and the lessons learned from them) on this blog, but it has taken me years to share this one.

Though I finished my WINGS flying with Stan (which, ironically, is supposed to make me safer), I have no desire to fly any more instructional flights with him.  I actually avoided him for at least a year afterward.  Not that Stan really did anything wrong; the failings were mine.  Over time, however, I came to realize that Stan had unwittingly taught me some extremely valuable lessons.

The obvious lesson is that I should not have extrapolated local (and non-standard) practices from my former home base to Oswego County no matter how much one facility reminded me of the other.

Second, there are better ways to manage the scenario I faced that day.  Yes, I could have followed my original instinct and landed with a crosswind, knowing that it was within my ability.  Or I could have broadcast a suggestion for a pattern change.  Or I could have left the pattern, allowed it to empty out, and returned to land on the appropriate runway.  In the years since, I have successfully avoided causing mass panic in the traffic pattern and that is exactly the way I like it.

My greatest failure that day was not exercising my responsibility as Pilot in Command (PIC).  When I was a student, the word of my instructor was absolute because he was PIC.  Once I became a private pilot, however, I was PIC for every flight (in a single engine land airplane) whether there was an instructor on board or not.  But my mindset regarding instructors did not graduate to that level.  I still viewed the CFI as an absolute authority and felt compelled to do what I was told.

As a result, it was Stan who taught me - indirectly - what it really meant to be PIC.  As PIC on that day, I not only had the legal right, but the responsibility, to conduct the flight as I saw fit.  I should not have obeyed the guy in the right seat when I did not agree with him.

In the end, after much angst, I came to realize that it was a valuable learning experience, perhaps one of my most important lessons ever.


  1. That's a tough one. I'd have gone with your initial choice. Another "what if": what would the insurance say if you had a midair collision ( hopefully survived) when you decided to completely throw the flow of the airport out of wack when you could have just as easily joined the flow and made a crosswind landing within your and the planes abilities?

    1. Given where all the airplanes were and the straight in approach we made, there was no real risk of a mid-air (unless someone was flying their downwind at 400' AGL, I suppose). Even so, it was absolutely not smart to create confusion in the pattern. You can see why I've been so long in confessing this one. But at the end of the day, the lesson was valuable: CFIs aren't perfect and if one of them tells you to do something that sounds stupid, then it probably is stupid.

      At some later date, I followed this guy (in separate airplanes) to another airport and he did the straight-in again. I overflew the airport, turned around, and entered on the 45. He was waiting impatiently for me on the ramp, but had the presence of mind not to mock me for flying per the AIM.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thank you for sharing the post and highlighting the great importance as a PIC.

    I can 'feel' you when you mentioned that CFI had absolute authority and felt compelled to do what I was told as well. But I will 'politely' remind myself and the right hand seat guy too, who the PIC was. And more often than not, the right hand seat guy will show decent respect to your decision after the reminder.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing and keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks! I was younger and much less experienced back when this happened. But I thought the lesson sufficiently worthwhile to share.

  3. Chris, thanks for sharing. That's one for the experience bucket, no harm no foul, you learned from that one. As FFF mentioned I think we all had those CFI Authority thoughts until we became more comfortable in our own abilities.

    1. Well said, Gary. I agree. In my case, as I brooded on what happened in the days that followed, it was like a switch was flipped. I have been quite happy to challenge CFIs ever since.

  4. Definitely a few good lessons in this one. I was actually kind of on board with him until the straight-in suggestion... not that I'm against straight-ins in all situations, but I would expect one to cause mass panic at a traffic-laden airport.

    Stewart's very similar to LWA in that it's full of crazy, nonstandard operations (albeit a single runway) so I absolutely understand how we're used to things that cause many pilots to freak the heck out. Great reminder why the AIM recommends specific patterns - and why it's wise to try to stick to one at an unfamiliar airport unless you know things operate differently.

    1. In some ways, the straight in on 6 actually made some sense because it kept me from interfering with the runway 33 pattern. That was actually the only reason I went along with using the other runway. But part of that was also the bias from my old home field. I think that generalizing specific situations to all situations is an easy trap for the inexperienced, so there was definitely a good lesson there.

      Now, on the other hand, had I done a straight-in on the runway everyone else was using, I think that would have been a dicier situation because of the potential to converge with traffic either on final or about to turn onto final.

      Either way, I thought the lesson was valuable to write about, even if it meant confessing that I did something stupid a few years and several hundred flight hours ago.

    2. True, and I get that logic. Agree with it, actually. But the devil on the other shoulder is yapping that many pilots (especially some that, ahem, aren't extraordinarily current - we've all been to fly-ins, right?) get all anxious when someone calls out anything other than the runway they're already using. So that's really all I was getting at, that the straight-in may have stirred up the bee's nest, even if it was a sound choice.

    3. Absolutely. I don't necessarily want to make any judgements about people's currency or ability, but doing something nonstandard definitely freaked people out.

  5. Hi Chris - man, what a lesson. It's natural to assume that our CFI knows more than we do, and we should hope that he or she does. But questioning them is always a good idea - and I think that it should start early. Not in a "hey, what you talkin' 'bout" kind of way, but an "I don't understand how that fits..." kind of way.

    I question everyone when something does not make sense. One of the things I have also noticed is that few question ATC, yet as PIC I should question them when it seems that what I've been asked to do does not make sense or seems dangerous/illegal/stupid. It's just like why I check final both directions when crossing a runway that I've been cleared to cross. If I screw up, I pay the price. If the controller screws up, I pay the price.

    As for a straight in - I think it depends on the pattern. If it's empty, then I think a straight in is totally appropriate. If there are people in the pattern, though I find myself following the 45-degree entry procedure and joining the traffic even if I'd prefer another runway.

    1. Absolutely! And your comment about ATC is spot on. ATC is great, but they make mistakes, too. As a new pilot, I was nervous about questioning them (heck, as a new pilot, I was nervous about TALKING to them), but it's par for the course now. And I am always glad when I do.

      I agree that may be a time and place for the straight-in. A deserted pattern may be a fine time to do it, but to be a devil's advocate, what if there's a NORDO aircraft or a deaf pilot in the pattern? And it's not always easy to survey an area and determine that there is absolutely no airplane in the vicinity. So, it gets tricky, because neither ears nor eyes may be adequate to verify absence of traffic in the vicinity of the airport. When I've done straight-ins at my home field, more often than not it's at night when it's easier to spot other aircraft in the pattern (and the NORDO Champ at my field with no electrical system will not be a factor).

      The sticking point, as you know, is making simulated instrument approaches, most of which will be done straight-in on VFR days. I think that a vigilant safety pilot/CFI is critical for these. I also try to make my radio calls very clear: "five mile final, runway X, simulated instrument approach" so that even the most basic VFR student will understand where I am and why.

      On a related note: I was flying into Genesee County airport a week ago for fuel when I heard the following transmissions from four different aircraft within a span of two minutes:
      "Skylane XYZ is two miles east of POCZI on the ILS-28." (POCZI is the FAF, to my point about transmissions that VFR pilots can understand)
      "Cessna ABC turning base, runway 10."
      "Mooney is on the 45, runway 10."
      "Cherokee 123 is on the 45, runway 28."

      Upon hearing that cluster in the making, I just turned toward home and bought the more expensive gas there.

  6. Chris - Great essay and a great lesson for all to contemplate. As I read your post, I was reminded of a book I read authored by Barry Schiff. In the book he said ( I paraphrase): "Listen to what your gut is tell you. If something you are doing doesn't feel right, it probably isn't - and you should probably go do something else until you sort it out."

    The other thought I had was a time I decided to practice crosswind landings and another pilot joined the pattern behind me. He landed full stop behind my touch-and-go on the crosswind runway. He could have elected to land on a crossing runway into the wind. He either elected to go with the traffic flow (me alone), or decided some crosswind practice would be beneficial for him also. I wonder if all the crosswind traffic you witnessed that day started out with somebody practicing crosswind landings and everyone else followed suite :o) Keep up the great work.

    1. Thanks, Ed. Your last point made me smile...if left to my own devices, I would have joined them, too! Because it was a busy fly in, it's very possible that the wind had shifted, but a constant stream of traffic led to pattern inertia.

  7. "flight instructors lived on Olympus" - Ha! Once you become one you will know that we all put our pants on backwards once in a while and our socks on the wrong feet. I agree with you that you should have been more forceful about acting as PIC and using your local knowledge to enhance flight safety. I disagree with you about no using straight in approaches, which are in accordance with the AIM and are perfectly safe *if you use the CTAF channel properly and communicate* - instrument aircraft do it all the time.

    I recently had a near miss at an airport like the one described below, requiring a steep turn 100ft AGL to avoid an Ag plane taking off on an intersecting runway in a similar situation. Scary. The scariest part is that, as far as I can recall, there is nothing I could have done better to enhance my safety.

    1. Oh, I get it, DB. The Olympus comment was intended to channel my younger self's impression. I know better now...clearly. :-)

      Your point about straight-ins is well made. I think the problem is that I have seen many examples of aircraft on the straight-in not doing a good job of clearly communicating position. As an instrument student, I try to be clear when doing my practice approaches and keep IFR jargon out of my calls, because that used to baffle me when I was a newbie. I try to pitch my radio calls to the lowest common denominator. And, while I will occasionally do straight in approaches (outside of simulated approach work), I avoid them in populated patterns.

      Thanks for your comments, DB.

  8. Well, what started out as a comment here turned into a post on my site.

    That seems to be happening a lot these days. Anyway, nice job handing a chaotic situation. Don't kick yourself too much, we always have 20/20 hindsight, remember...


    1. Thanks, Ron. I enjoyed your article. And, now that you mention it, there was a taildragger that landed shortly after I did, and HE used the same runway I did. I don't blame him.